It’s the third Saturday in September, 2016, Kroger Field. Early in the first quarter of the Kentucky-New Mexico State game, the phone is ringing on the UK sideline. It’s for Stephen Johnson.
A few minutes prior, Drew Barker had been hauled off to the locker room with a severe back injury. Nobody knew it then but he would never return as the Wildcats’ starting QB.
Johnson had just stepped in and thrown a pair of incomplete passes – one of them nearly intercepted. A smattering of boos followed him to the sideline.
Darrin Hinshaw wanted to talk.
From high above the field, Hinshaw had a vital message for the new signal-caller. Johnson had played a few snaps the week prior at Florida – which meant he was the only quarterback on the Kentucky roster who’d ever appeared in a college football game.
“I got on the phone and said, ‘Stephen, Drew is being carted off on a gator right now and he’s not coming back,’ “ Hinshaw recalls. “I said, ‘You are our quarterback right now.’ I said, ‘Go out and play. Nobody else is coming in. Go out and play.’ “
It was just what Johnson needed to hear.
“It was a very straightforward conversation,” Johnson said on a recent edition of the “Big Blue Insider” radio program. “It was very real. It put my mind where it needed to be — I’ve got a get this done or we don’t get it done as a football team and everything comes crashing down.
“That conversation with coach Hinshaw settled me down and got me going.”
It also changed the course of Wildcat football for the next two seasons.
From then on, Stephen Johnson was a model of leadership and toughness. He led the Cats to a pair of seven-win seasons, complete with bowl appearances at the end of each. That toughness is the recurring theme of a documentary called, “Stephen Johnson: Heart of a Wildcat” which will air Sunday night at 9 p.m. ET on the SEC Network, during UK Takeover Day.
Hinshaw describes the conversation he had with head coach Mark Stoops upon arriving as Kentucky’s new co-offensive coordinator and QB coach. Stoops told him there was no quarterback on the roster, other than Barker, with any experience. They needed to find a backup from the junior college ranks, and fast.
Hinshaw studied video of more than 20 candidates and when he was finished, he doubled back to the very first one he watched. It was highlights from the College of the Desert. The signal-caller was a skinny kid from Rancho Cucamonga, California.
“Stephen Johnson was the guy who stood out to me,” Hinshaw says. “He had offers and places to go. I thought he had the potential ability to compete right away.”
Johnson DID have offers – primarily from FCS schools. But there was one D-1 scholarship awaiting and Johnson figured he’d take it.
“My mind and my heart was set for the University of Hawaii,” Johnson says, “and then I got the phone call from Coach Stoops and Coach Hinshaw.”
He became Barker’s backup but then he got another phone call – the one during the New Mexico State game. After he hung up, he became a different quarterback, throwing for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns that day.
Johnson had reported at 6-0, 165 lbs., a mere waif by Southeastern Conference football standards. (When center Drake Jackson first saw Johnson, he assumed the new guy was a walk-on punter)
Opposing defenders, when they could get their hands on Johnson, threw him around like a rag doll. But he kept getting up, no matter how much he was hurting.
“Every hit was going to be like getting hit by an 18-wheeler,” he said. But in spite of that, “You had guys relying on you. You couldn’t let them down.”
His teammates noticed.
“There were times you’d look at him on the field,” says his roommate, former nose guard Naquez Pringle. “(It was) like, ‘Brah get up… get up Steve, just get up…’ “
And he did. Every time.
“It’s his will and determination to get back on that field,” Pringle says. “He’s not gonna let nobody down, no matter how bad he’s hurt. He might not tell you when he’s hurt but as someone who’s been around him, you know when he’s hurting. He can’t give up. That’s just who he is.”
On Sunday mornings, Pringle says, Johnson was so sore he could barely get out of bed and make it to treatment. But by Monday he was back on the practice field and by Saturday – behind center, ready to go to work.
If anyone can appreciate that kind of work ethic, it’s Mark Stoops – himself, a product of the hardscrabble, blue collar world that is Youngstown, Ohio.
“Stephen will always rate at the top of anyone I’ve ever coached for being tough and having the courage it takes to be a winner,” Stoops says in the documentary. “His actions speak very loudly to this program. He’ll go down in history as one of the toughest players to play at the University of Kentucky. And he should. “
All because when Kentucky called, Johnson answered. When Hinshaw called down to the sideline, Johnson responded. And when situations called for the toughness it takes to play with pain, Johnson pushed through.
Watch his story Sunday night.
(“Stephen Johnson: Heart of a Wildcat” airs Sunday, July 29 at 9 p.m. on the SEC Network.)